Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

“The War of Northern Aggression” as Modern, Segregationist Revisionism

Posted in Memory by Andy Hall on June 21, 2011

On the Diane Rehm show I mentioned earlier, I was struck by an observation made by Chandra Manning, that the term she first learned in elementary school in Florida, “the War of Northern Aggression,” is itself a modern term, one that was not used in the 19th century:

I grew up all over the country on naval bases and the first place that I learned about the Civil War in a classroom was Jacksonville, Fla. And we said the Pledge of Allegiance to the U.S. flag each morning, but we then sang “Dixie” to the pictures of Lee and Stonewall Jackson on either side. And so my introduction to the study of the Civil War has an interesting cast to it.

You can’t pigeonhole me North or South and so I was taken by his noticing of that phrase, “War of Northern Aggression,” because when I was six, that’s how it was introduced to me. So imagine my surprise to learn that that’s a 20th century invention, that nobody called it that during the war itself. Northerners called it “The Rebellion,” Southerners, if they called it anything other than “this awful war,” called it the “Civil War.”

Is that true, that the phrase “War of Northern Aggression” is a modern term? It is:

Google News can be used to track the appearance of words and phrases in its archive of hundreds of thousands of pages of historic newspapers, going back through the 19th century and beyond. Not only is “the War of Northern Aggression” a term that was not widely used at the time of the war, it didn’t come into wide use for nearly a century after, from the mid-1950s on. In Google’s indexing, it appears exactly once during the conflict, describing the war, not as a proper name as it is commonly seen today. (The single example in the 19th century comes from an 1862 speech by Union General John Alexander McClernand, who cautioned Tennesseans that “you have been told, gentlemen, that this is a war of Northern aggression. I deny it. It is no war of aggression. It is a war of defence, of defence of our common Constitution and Union.”)

As a proper noun, “the War of Northern Aggression” doesn’t even date back to what may be termed the “golden years” of the Lost Cause, around the turn of the 20th century.

Other large newspaper databases return similar results. GenalogyBank (a subscription service), turns up the earliest reference to “the War of Northern Aggression” in a May 12, 1956 article (above) in the Augusta, Georgia, Chronicle (“S.C. Governor Suggests Negroes Evacuate South”), in which the phrase is set off in quotes, and the governor warns about Northerners “stirring racial strife in the South.”

The subscription service NewspaperArchive similarly dates the phrase “War of Northern Aggression” to no earlier than 1957:

Apart from the 1862 example mentioned earlier, the term “War of Northern Aggression” didn’t appear in the New York Times again until 1972.

While there may be other, scattered examples that predate the mid-1950s, it’s clear that the phrase “War of Northern Aggression,” used as a proper noun for the Civil War, only came into regular use in the last 50 years or so. It is not a term that was used during that conflict, or for nearly a century after.

So what, exactly, was happening in the United States at about that time? What was going on the mid-to-late 1950s and early 1960s that caused it to become a popular rhetorical device? Part of it seems to be the Civil War Centennial, but there was also Brown v. Board of Education, Little Rock, Mansfield, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, lunch counter sit-ins, the Citizen’s Councils, the Freedom Riders and so on. There was lots going on, and even a quick perusal of early examples of its usage make clear that “the War of Northern Aggression,” as a proper noun, was routinely employed by Southern segregationists to draw parallels between the civil rights struggles of the mid-20th century and the conflict of a hundred years before, to enlist the memory of Confederate ancestors in opposition to federal court-mandated processes like the desegregation of public schools and integration of public facilities. The phrase “War of Northern Aggression” does not trace its origins to the cause of Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis; it finds its champions with the likes of Orval Faubus and George Wallace.

The Southron Heritage™ movement rails continually about “revisionist” history and “presentism,” usually in reference to “politically correct” authors who put the issue of slavery at the center of the conflict. But they should keep in mind that revisionism cuts both ways. Most of the orthodoxy held as The Truth by such folks (secession was about states’ rights,  slavery would have gone away on its own, slavery was a benign institution, etc.) aren’t based on original, primary sources from the 1860s so much as they are from the voluminous Lost Cause literature from the 1890s onward, and (to a lesser degree) the Dunning School of historiography that followed it. The tenets of the Lost Cause itself are revisionist, departing from the words and deeds of Southerners during the war, to reshape and redefine the Confederacy and its legacy as something wholly pure and noble, and to deflect moral accountability onto others. It’s old revisionism, but revisionism nonetheless.

Even so, I’m surprised at how new the term “the War of Northern Aggression” actually is. Knowing its genesis, it’s hard to imagine why anyone would want to invoke it, or expect to be taken seriously when they do.

Confederate Reunions: Simple Images, Complex Realities

Posted in African Americans, Memory by Andy Hall on November 29, 2010

About a year ago the blog Confederate Digest posted an image from the Alabama Department of Archives and History, showing participants at what was billed as the “Last Confederate Reunion,” held at Montgomery, Alabama in September 1944. The African American man at center is identified, from the archives’ catalog description, as Dr. R. A. Gwynne of Birmingham, Alabama. No additional information about Dr. Gwynne is provided, and there seems to be an unspoken assertion that his presence is evidence of his service as a soldier, and there is an implicit assumption that he was viewed at the time as a co-equal peer of the white veterans. But as with Crock Davis and the Eighth Texas Cavalry, the reality is more complex, and reflects the social and cultural minefield of both the antebellum and Jim Crow South.

As it happens, the Alabama archive website also includes a copy of the issue of the Alabama Historical Quarterly (Vol. 06, No. 01, Spring Issue 1944) containing a detailed description of the event. The attendees are described thus:

Commander-in-Chief of the Confederate Veterans, Homer L. Atkinson, of Petersburg, Va., was unable to attend on account of illness. The first Veteran to arrive was Brigadier-General W. M. Buck, of Muscogee, Oklahoma, who has already reached the age of 93 but is remarkably active and came from Muscogee to Montgomery unescorted. The Georgia delegation was sent through the courtesy of Governor Ellis Arnall in a beautiful car escorted by the Georgia State Highway Patrol in charge of Corp. Paul Smith. In the delegation were Col. W. H. Culpepper, 96 years of age and Gen. W. L. Bowling, 97. Other Veterans present were: Gen. J. W. Moore, of Selma, 93 years of age, who was elected at the close of the Reunion to be Commander-in-Chief of the Veterans; J. D. Ford, Marshall, Texas, 95 years of age; W. W. Alexander, Rock Hill, S. C., 98; Gen. William Banks, Houston, Texas, 98; J. A. Davidson, Troy, 100 years of age. All Veterans except Gen. Buch were accompanied by attendants.

There’s no mention of Dr. Gwynne, only the seven white veterans. There follows a long description of the various activities at the reunion, speeches, musical performances and so on (“Mrs. Thomas wore a Scarlett O’Hara dress and received vociferous applause when she sang ‘Shortenin’ Bread'”), and then, tacked on at the end of the piece, is a brief note:

In the group of seven Veterans [sic., eight men total, seven white and one black] that posed for a photograph was one Negro man slave 90 years of age who served in the war as a body guard to his master. This man, Dr. R. A. Gwynne, lives in Birmingham where he is a well known character.

This, along with the caption accompanying the photo, is the only mention of Dr. Gwynne in the account of the reunion. It seems clear from the context that Dr. Gwynne was, even in 1944, considered separate and apart from the white veterans. He’s almost literally an afterthought. As I said, we’ve seen this before.

In the comments section of the original post, blogger Corey Meyer pointed out — with more than a little snark — that Dr. Gwynne’s seated position may indicate his status was considered different than that of the others in the photo. The blog host fired back with speculation that Dr. Gwynne may have had an infirmity that kept him from standing, suggested that Meyer was arguing that Dr. Gwynne was somehow forced to participate in the reunion “against his will,” and repeated the standard tropes about the “indisputable fact that thousands of blacks, both slave and free, willingly served in the Confederate armed forces, defending their homeland against a brutal, invading northern army.” Another commenter, well-known on Confederate heritage sites, chimed in with some gratuitous name-calling directed against Meyer.

This is, sadly, the way online “discussions” about “black Confederates” generally go — lots of sarcasm, rancor and name-calling, with little or no attention paid to the individual subject, and no acknowledgment or understanding of the larger context of the periods under discussion, either the 1860s or early 20th century South. In this case, Dr. Gwynne gets completely overlooked, because his only role here is to serve as a convenient example of the “thousands of blacks, both slave and free, willingly served in the Confederate armed forces, defending their homeland against a brutal, invading northern army.” (Entirely disregarded is the fact that, if Dr. Gwynne was indeed 90 years old in September 1944, he could not have been more than eleven at the end of the Civil War, a child even by 19th century standards.)

This, too, is entirely typical of the way images of old African American men at Confederate reunions are used as “evidence” of those men having been considered soldiers. Most of the time, these images are splashed out on a website without any further explanation and without full identification of the men involved, the units they were affiliated with, or even the date and location of the reunion. This 1944 example is better in that the man in question is identified, but the intended point is still the same — that Dr. Gwynne’s presence is proof “that thousands of blacks, both slave and free, willingly served in the Confederate armed forces, defending their homeland against a brutal, invading northern army.” It’s not; it’s only evidence that Dr. Gwynne attended the event, and posed for a photo with the white veterans. The photos says nothing conclusive about his status during the war, how he was viewed by those same white veterans, or what his motivations or beliefs were when, as an enslaved child, he was taken off to war to serve as a “body guard” to an unknown master.

I haven’t been able to find much on Dr. Gwynne in the usual online sources for contemporary newspapers, census records and the like. I suspect that he may have been a clergyman, rather than a physician, but I don’t know. I’ll keep looking. It remains an open question how much, and in what role, Dr. Gwynne participated in the reunion festivities; we know that in Crock Davis’ case thirty years previous, he was silent spectator at the veterans’ business meeting, and did not eat at the same banquet table with the white veterans. Did a similar, Jim Crow standard apply to Dr. Gwynne at the “Last Confederate Reunion” in Jackson in 1944, or to other Confederate reunions across the South in the decades previous? It sure seems like a mistake to assume that it didn’t, or that views on race and social position of black servants held by the white soldiers of 1861-65 had completely disappeared in the intervening decades.

No serious historian has ever, to my knowledge, questioned that black men, most of the them former slaves and personal servants, participated in Confederate reunions from the 1890s onward. It would be surprising if at least some men didn’t, given the social pressures of the time and the pervasiveness of the “faithful slave” meme that helped define the Lost Cause. John Brown Gordon, commander of the United Confederate Veterans, described it at the time, observing that “these faithful servants at that time boasted of being Confederates, and many of them meet now with the veterans in their reunions, and, pointing to their Confederate badges, relate with great satisfaction and pride their experiences and services during the war. One of them, who attends nearly all the reunions, can, after a lapse of nearly forty years, repeat from memory the roll call of the company to which his master belonged.” The great Southern historian Bell Irvin Wiley, writing just a few years before the “Last Confederate Reunion,” devoted an entire chapter of his classic Southern Negroes, 1861-1865 to black body servants and their complex and (often distinctly unfaithful) relationship with their masters. It’s a very complex business, as Wiley relates, but even he noted that “even now [1938], gray-haired Negroes, dressed in ‘Confederate Gray,’ are among the most honored veterans in attendance at soldier’s reunions.” They were honored by white Confederate veterans explicitly because they embodied the “faithful slave” meme that was central to the way the Confederacy was consistently portrayed by most Southerners at the time, and by some right up to today. I don’t doubt that Dr. Gwynne (and Crock Davis, and Bill Yopp and. . . .) gladly took part in these events, and took a measure of pride in their involvement in the war. But at the same time, their professed pride in the Confederate cause served a larger purpose for white Southerners, and (knowingly or not) those black men took on a role carefully crafted as part of the Lost Cause tradition, that of the loyal slave, still faithful to both his master and to the cause, decades later. They were honored and valued because they did this, as much as for their service to their masters decades before.

People are complicated, and often their true motivations and beliefs are impossible to know. But we do a real disservice to the past to use the sort of historical shorthand offered in the case of Dr. Gwynne or dozens of other unnamed black men photographed at Confederate reunions, that their presence is prima facie evidence of the their having been soldiers, and accepted as co-equal peers by the white veterans. That is, to borrow a line commonly used as a cudgel by Southern heritage groups on those who disagree with them, a singularly bad case of “presentism,” using fragments of the historical record to make the case for an entirely modern and self-serving interpretation. The actual contemporary evidence, when available, suggests otherwise. It does not honor these men to present them as something they were not, nor does it credit the research skill or integrity of the person making the claim.

A Smart Take on Black Confederates

Posted in African Americans by Andy Hall on October 20, 2010

With all due respect to Kevin and Robert and so many others who’ve pulled apart the Black Confederate meme, spread the pieces out on the table and looked at them from different angles to see what makes it run, Adam Serwer today had one of the most insightful, cut-to-the-core, expose-the-man-behind-the-curtain analyses I’ve seen yet:

White guilt is generally characterized as a liberal phenomenon. The idea is that liberals seek to exonerate themselves from past racism rather than simply meet their obligations to their fellow citizens. To the extent that the former is an accurate description of someone’s motives, the criticism is warranted. But the attempt to minimize the suffering caused by slavery and segregation, to recast the Lost Cause as one motivated by “honor” and self-determination rather than racial supremacy and the preservation of chattel slavery, arises out of the same contemptible emotional impulse. The Lost Causer insisting that the Confederacy was not built on racism because of the presence of black soldiers isn’t any less mired in guilt than the liberal quietly mouthing the names of their black friends as they count them on their fingertips. In both cases, the individual trying to free themselves from history ends up drowning in a bottomless pit of self-pity and self-deception that, over time, can only ferment into rage over inability to find an absolution that will be forever beyond their reach.


h/t, David White of the Golden Horde.

In Which I Make the Neoconfederates Cry

Posted in Media, Memory by Andy Hall on June 25, 2010

“Old Rebel,” writing at the League of the South’s Rebellion blog, highlights Dead Confederates along with Kevin’s Civil War Memory, Corey Meyer’s Blood of My Kindred and Edward Sebesta as “anti-Southern cyberstalkers” who hold a “seething hatred against an entire people and their culture” and who lead a “a shallow, unfulfilled life.”

These people remind me of the creepy serial killers from a Patricia Cornwell thriller. Cornwell’s villains can’t have meaningful human relationships, so they stalk and murder those who do. Young couples are the usual victims of these ghouls because the couples possess something the stalkers can’t have. My guess is that anti-Southern cyber-stalkers resent a living, vibrant culture with rich traditions and a sense of belonging and meaning that’s been denied them, so they snipe at those who do. If they can’t have cultural moorings, no one else can, either.

There’s no point in trying to refute this sort of name-calling, since there’s no actual substance to it. But I would like to make a few points of my own.

  1. Getting denounced by the official blog of the League of the South after being online for only nine days is indescribably awesome.
  2. That my dinky little blog should be mentioned in the same breath as Kevin’s, Corey’s and Ed Sebesta’s work is just staggering. I am genuinely humbled.
  3. Getting linked by the League of the South’s blog has really bounced my web traffic over the last couple of days — Dead Confederates isn’t exactly burnin’ up the Intertubes (yet), but I’m getting more referrals from Rebellion than from all other sources combined. Thanks, Old Rebel!

Kidding aside, Corey Meyer highlights a much more serious problem, one that speaks to the lengths some people will go to denounce their detractors. Some time back, Corey sent the Rebellion blog a photo he’d found online of someone wiping a commode with a Confederate Battle Flag. Snarky? Yep. And in retrospect, probably not a good idea, because instead of ignoring it — which Old Rebel argues that “that’s what the “Delete” key is for” — it seems Old Rebel or one of his/her confederates subsequently Photoshopped a p*rn magazine into the picture, and is now distributing the altered image as actually having originated with Corey.

This is dishonest. This is lying.

Old Rebel — who unlike Corey, Kevin, Ed Sebesta and me, seems unwilling to blog under his or her real name — and the League of the South are welcome to their views, both of current politics and historical events. They’re welcome to express those views, and have proved to be passionate and energetic in doing so. But neither they nor anyone else has the right to use this sort of dishonest, childish and shameful tactic to smear those they perceive as their opponents. In doing so, they forfeit the right to be taken seriously, about this or anything else.

But Aren’t They All Dead?

Posted in Memory by Andy Hall on June 23, 2010

Cousin Katie‘s gonna haunt me for being flip about Confederate widows.

The new 2010 Texas GOP platform calls for (PDF, p. 6), among other things, “restoration of plaques honoring the Confederate Widow’s Pension Fund contribution that were removed from the Texas Supreme Court building.” That short sentence, of course, leaves out an embarrassing part of the backstory, and lies about another, much more important fact. First, the plaques were removed in 2000 by order of then-Governor George W. Bush, who is widely reported to be a Republican himself, and second, the bronze plaques do not “honor the Confederate Widow’s Pension Fund.” They are actually paeans to the Confederacy and Texas’s role in it, complete with the Confederate Battle Flag and national seal. They have nothing to do with Confederate widows; they’re classic Lost Cause memorials.

I honestly was, and still am, conflicted about the removal of these plaques  a decade ago. They’re offensive to many Texans, but I also dislike the idea of removing established monuments, even when they reflect sentiments that are badly, badly out of touch with current values and history. (Better, I think, to acknowledge that they are themselves artifacts of their time, and interpret them in that way in situ.) I also understand that these were located in not just a public building, but in the state friggin’  Supreme Court — you know, where all people are equal in the eyes of the law, and so on. That latter point, I think, raises the stakes in this dispute for all sides.

I would almost certainly be against the original removal of these plaques had they been as represented by the Texas GOP — “honoring the Confederate Widow’s Pension Fund contribution.” But that’s not what they are. They’re definitely better gone, and placed in a state history museum where they can be both preserved and interpreted as artifacts of their day. As it happens, there’s a pretty good one just up the street. But the question is no longer whether they should stay; the question is, should they be brought back?

And the answer is, “no.” Let them go, folks — we’ve all got more important things to deal with.

Bonus Fun Fact: The Texas Supreme Court Building is so fugly that the Texas Supreme Court Historical Society uses a picture of the Capitol on its website.

I Was Praying for Intermission, Myself

Posted in Media, Memory, Uncategorized by Andy Hall on June 21, 2010

It doesn’t really bother me so much that the 2003 film Gods and Generals portrays Stonewall Jackson as a bit of a hyper-religious crank because, you know, he was.

What bothers me is that the film portrays this as a good thing.